Wednesday, October 26, 2011


If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
- Bishop Desmond Tutu                 

It is impossible to avoid news stories about bullying these days. It is beyond alarming to read article after article of students experiencing painful verbal or physical bullying, and at its worst, have lead students to take their own lives. Bullying is a topic on talk shows, plot lines for television shows, movies, and books. It is a pervasive, troubling issue plaguing our young people, affecting social development and academic achievement.

What is bullying? Though definitions of bullying vary from source to source, generally agreed upon characteristics include that bullying is the repeated interaction between individuals with the intention to cause physical or emotional harm where the bully is physically, socially, or psychologically more powerful than the victim. Bullying often takes aim at race, religion, and sexual orientation. Bullying can take several forms:
  • Verbal: name-calling, teasing, taunting, threats
  • Social: spreading rumors, leaving people out on purpose, breaking up friendships 
  • Physical: hitting, punching, shoving
  • Cyberbullying: using the Internet, cell phones, or other digital technologies to harm others
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that surveys indicate that as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10% are bullied on a regular basis. This is not an isolated issue. It is a problem in urban, suburban, and rural schools and at every grade level.

As a teacher, it can be very difficult to know what to do about this issue. It takes a lot of time to sort out what happens between students, teachers often worry about drawing more attention to a situation, and they aren't sure how to handle the situation. What we do know, however, is that doing nothing is not the answer.  In a survey of more than 13,000 students in grades 5-12 during the 2009-2010 academic year by the Youth Voice Project students indicated that when adults ignored what was going on, told bullied youth to stop tattling, or told them to solve the problem themselves, the situation often got worse not better. From these students, we learn that the least effective method of stopping the bullying was trying to handle it themselves and the most effective was when they asked friends and adults for help. From adults, support, encouragement, and vigilance were most likely to lead to a positive outcome for the students.

So what can you do?
  1. Listen.
  2. Communicate classroom expectations clearly and follow through on classroom policies.
  3. Ask students about bullying. When you work on building relationships with students and show an interest in their lives, you become an ally for students to go to when bullying occurs.
  4. Make it easier for students to report bullying incidents. Have a suggestion box and/or survey students regularly. And then respond immediately.
  5. Observe students in their peer relationships. Know who students are friends with and who their friends are, whom they dislike, whom they view as popular and unpopular.
  6. When students come to you with a concern, follow up with them in an ongoing way. 
  7. Build relationships with parents and communicate regularly with parents of students experiencing bullying.
  8. Model respect.
  9. Recruit peer volunteers to support victims of bullying.
  10. Keep records of incidents, report incidents to the appropriate staff at school, and know the school policies.
Most of all, it is important to take seriously reports of bullying. When we brush off incidents as "kids being kids," we send the message that bullying is acceptable. And this cannot be the message we send to our students.

What kinds of bullying have you witnessed? What have you done to support students dealing with bullying?

September, 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, "Promoting Respectful Schools."

Thursday, October 20, 2011


For all teachers, but particularly first year teachers, Education Minnesota Conference weekend can provide some necessary reflection time. At this point, you've likely fallen into survival mode. The newness of the year has worn off but you still can't quite catch up. This weekend can be a great opportunity to stop, connect, and recharge. If you're like me, you spent some time at the Professional Conference today, which is always a great opportunity to network or learn something new. But, as I would suspect, some of you took the opportunity to slow down a bit.

This long weekend might be a great opportunity to send an email or make a phone call to another new teacher you graduated with or you met at new teacher orientation. That person you've been meaning to find out how their year has been going but just haven't had the time? Yeah, that one. These friends can offer important personal and emotional support for you in this tough first year. They can also be a sounding board for instructional reflection and problem-solving. Particularly in my first year of teaching, I needed people to talk with about "my kids," people who understood how hard this job was and how nagging the concerns for students can be. How best intentions fall flat. How exhausting it is to plan 6 straight hours of instruction. every. day.

Even if you've been too busy to connect since you've left your programs or orientation, set aside a few minutes this weekend or in the next few weeks to reconnect with someone who can relate to where you are in this journey of your first year of teaching.

Whatever you have planned for this weekend, the conference, yard work, a last trip to the cabin, sleep, I hope that you can find some time to recharge.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

parent-teacher conferences

You've been a teacher for a couple months now and just as you're settling into the routine, you're faced with parent-teacher conferences. I remember being terrified the first time through, dreading the unknown of how the conferences might go. Turns out, I really enjoyed parent-teacher conferences. It allowed me a glimpse into how my students functioned within their family, and I always came away with a little more insight into how to reach the student. Parent-teacher conferences are exhausting, don't get me wrong. And honestly, some did not go well. But the conferences do provide an important link between home and school.

Teacher Gail Tillery writes in Education Week, "Your students' parents are not your enemies. Ultimately, they want the same thing you want, which is the best for their children. By maintaining respectful and productive communication, you can work together to help students succeed." Though she writes about how even after 26 years of teaching, she still gets a little worry in her belly when she sees an email or voicemail from a parent or as parent-teacher conferences approach (ah, I know the feeling well!), she knows that is the key to fully supporting students' education.

For teachers working with ELL students in the classroom (which, really, is almost all of us these days), parent communication and conferences can be an additional source of concern. In some cases, you may need to make sure to work with your school in order to have a fully bilingual interpreter available for the scheduled conference time with a family so that you can communicate with parents in their preferred language. It is best not to rely on students to interpret for the conference, as this can disempower the parent and put the student in an uncomfortable position.

Education Minnesota (are you going to the professional conference next week?) has some helpful advice for successful conferences for new teachers. The Harvard Family Research Project has some great tips available here. I also found some helpful parent-teacher conferences dos and don'ts at the NY teachers' association website.

Bottom line, don't be too freaked out. Remember, you're all there for the well-being of the student. Be welcoming when parents come into your classroom, be prepared with things to say about your students, listen actively, and go in with the attitude that this is an opportunity. Have as much fun as you can, and plan to collapse in bed at the end of the night!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

teaching myth: quiet and still = learning

One myth of teaching that continues to pervade some classrooms (though is thankfully lessening in strength) is that students must be silent and still, listening to the "most important person" in the room (the teacher) for learning to take place.

In my first year of teaching, I taught next to a teacher who so believed in this myth that when playing Bingo during reward time, her students had to raise their hands silently when they had Bingo. They couldn't even say Bingo out loud! To her, my classroom was chaos, a disaster, a place where no learning could possibly take place. I'll admit that of course as a first year teacher, there were moments where chaos took over and learning lost out. But mostly, my students were engaged in learning together.

Two keys to student motivation are working collaboratively and movement. I know I hate to sit for 6 straight hours, and so do students. Get them moving. Not a lot, just have set times when you schedule a change in groups working together. One thing you can do is establish clock partners. Pass out a picture of a clock, and have students find partners for set times on the clock. I tend to do 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 partners (rather than all 12 hours, just because it is easier for students to remember their clock buddies if there are fewer). But I have done it with all 12, and then made sure students taped the clock into their planner or kept somewhere safe that they could refer to them easily. This way, they have a variety of people they work with regularly, and it isn't a production every time you want students to pair up (or they always pair with the same person).

Then, as frequently as it makes sense, you can have students complete a quickwrite on the topic of the day to start class, work on an assignment, review their homework, pair-share during a lesson, jigsaw a reading, quiz each other on course material, review vocabulary, whatever works in your lessons. Like with anything, if the work is purposeful and moving to their partners is an established and frequently used routine, in the end, it should help rather than hinder classroom management.

Here's a website that has one version of clock partners available online. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the "Appointment Clock Buddies" link to pull up a pdf. The clock here is decidedly more elementary-looking, but a plainer version is available here. I've used this with primary students through college, and think it works well with all age levels. It's a simple way to vary collaborative groupings and give students opportunities to move around to work with others.

What other ways do you get students moving in your classroom?